Aerial view of central Tehran, 2008. Flickr/Ensie & Matthias. Some rights reserved.In the early hours of 10 May, a rocket attack into the Israel-controlled Golan heights was followed by a series of Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) airstrikes into Syria. At the time of writing details are sketchy, but the latter – involving more than fifty raids that widely targeted Iran's military infrastructure in Syria – are evidently substantial. The timing of this confrontation, just hours after President Trump announced the United States's withdrawal from the multilateral treaty over Iran's nuclear programme, gives it added significance.
The first incident started when two mobile Uragan rocket-launchers were used to fire around twenty unguided BM-27 short-range rockets across the border towards Israeli forces deployed in the Golan, which was among the territory taken by Israel in the six-day war of 1967.
The BM-27 is a 1970s-vintage Soviet system, and some rockets were reportedly intercepted by the IDF's "iron dome" anti-missile system. There were no reports of Israeli casualties. Israel claims that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was responsible, and Israel responded with a major series of air- and missile-attacks on dozens of targets in Syria, mainly sites linked to the IRGC.
If this is confirmed as an Iranian operation, it would be only the second by the IRGC into Israel, the first coming in February when a small armed-drone was fired across the northern Israel border. There are three likely motives, the first two at heart political: straightforward retaliation for the hundred or so raids that Israel has conducted into Syria, and a response to Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear treaty in a way that also raised the domestic status of the IRGC at a time of political unity within Iran. The third motive is military: to test the effectiveness of Israeli defences and to assess the strength of the Israeli response. By turn, the very strong Israeli response was necessary for domestic solidarity and a reminder to Iran of Israeli capabilities.
The rockets fired by the IRGC did little damage to the Israeli positions, but the Iranians would have prepared for an intense IDF response. The physical impact apart, most of the personnel and key equipment was likely dispersed. IRGC assessors will now analyse the nature of the attack, especially if earth-penetrating bunker-busting bombs were used, and use the experience to plan their further deployments in Syria, with Hizbollah allies drawing lessons for their own bases in Lebanon.
The bigger picture
Behind this sudden escalation is a wider context which it may be helpful to outline. A recent Oxford Research Group briefing on the US-UK-France attack on Syria argued that the main beneficiaries from that attack would actually be Syria-Russia-Iran. For Bashar al-Assad's regime, the symbolic nature of the attack gave Damascus free rein to use any method short of chemical weapons to win the war. The Russians were satisfied that their influence in Syria would be maintained, and the Iranians were assured they could keep their security forces in Syria and continue to aid Hizbollah with few problems (see "The Syria Attack: Motives and Consequences", ORG, 24 April 2018).
Israel, by contrast, was anything but happy. It had expected a more severe attack that would have signalled to Russia and especially Iran that the United States and its allies would not allow them to expand their influence. A recent column in this series took this point further, arguing that Israel was already engaged in an extensive indirect war against Iran – primarily through airstrikes on Syria, of which there have been around a hundred so far (see "Israel vs Iran, a looming war", 18 April 2018).
In this environment, Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement will have been hugely welcomed by Israel's prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu. He heads a notably hawkish government that sees Iran as by far the greatest security threat to Israel, the term “existential threat” never being far away. The Saudis may not go that far, yet they see Iran as their own greatest danger and will also be pleased with Trump’s decision.
European reaction, by contrast, has been swift. The European Union, after all, is a signatory to the nuclear treaty along with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany. This demonstrates a serious concern that Trump’s decision will increase geopolitical tensions even further, sharpen the risk of a major Israel-Iran war, and even open the possibility of US-led regime termination in Tehran. Many security analysts may see such warnings as doom-mongering, but a serious examination of the current situation gives them some support.
It is becoming clear that a policy of full-scale containment of Iran is being advocated in Washington. Evidence of this relates not just to events in Syria, but also to an increasing and direct involvement of the US military in aiding the Saudis in their war against the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen.
An illuminating insight here is is given by the Pentagon's reported commercial request on 30 April to potential contractors able to provide emergency casualty evacuation for US special forces in Yemen. The US Transportation Command, it says, is conducting market research to identify "air carriers operating ballistic-protected fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft capable of providing medical and casualty evacuation services" within Yemen and “all surrounding countries, waterways, and the Horn of Africa” (see Kyle Rempfer, "DoD exploring medevac options for special operations forces within Yemen", Military Times, 9 May 2018).
This follows reports that a team of US army Green Beret special-forces troops arrived in Saudi Arabia in late 2017 to help pinpoint the location of ballistic-missile launchers and their missile caches in Houthi-controlled parts of the country (see "Army Special Forces Secretly Help Saudis Combat Threat From Yemen Rebels", New York Times, 3 May 2018).
The point about contracting out "casevac" operations to a private security company is that the Pentagon sees its operations in Yemen as long-term commitments: part of a wider containment policy towards Iran which, from the point of view of the hawks around Trump, is an essential part of turning round the consequences of the disastrous war in Iraq that gave Iran greatly increased influence in the region.
The next escalation?
In turn, that leaves the question of whether Trump’s team are engaged only in containment of Iran – or want something much more. For people like John Bolton, the new national-security adviser, the answer was provided by George W Bush’s state-of-the-union address in January 2002 that extended the war on terror to an “axis of evil” (composed initially of Iraq, Iran and North Korea). These states threatened the "new American century" advocated by the neo-conservative right, and thus had to be brought to book. But the consequences were alarming: Saddam Hussein's regime was dealt with but the effort ended up strengthening Iran, while North Korea has not just survived under Kim Jong Un but is now a nuclear power.
Trump, now looking forward to strutting the world stage alongside Kim Jong-Un, reportedly in Singapore, may think he can close the deal with North Korea. But the bigger issue is actually Israel, whose prime minister sees Iran as an urgent matter that has to be fixed. But if the aim is regime termination in Tehran, the United States must be heavily involved. Here, the security advisers closest to Trump are key to understanding the risk of war.
Even apart from the reliably strong support for Israel in the United States's upper echelons, Netanyahu can count on three people close to Trump on matters of national security. Mike Pence, the vice-president, is a religious conservative with very strong Christian Zionist tendencies. If Israel is ordained by God to prepare the way for the "end times", then for Pence the matter of getting rid of the Iranian leadership is hardly a big deal (see "Christian Zionists and neocons: a heavenly marriage", 3 February 2005; and "Trump, Pence, Jerusalem: the Christian Zionism connection", 14 December 2017).
Mike Pompeo, the former CIA head now at the state department, is not far behind Pence in his religious zeal for Israel. But the most important of the trio is the ultra-assertive realist John Bolton. His uncompromising views on Iran were expressed succinctly in the New York Times in 2016:
“The inescapable conclusion is that Iran will not negotiate away its nuclear program. Nor will sanctions block its building a broad and deep weapons infrastructure. The inconvenient truth is that only military action like Israel’s 1981 attack on Saddam Hussein’s Osirak reactor in Iraq or its 2007 destruction of a Syrian reactor, designed and built by North Korea, can accomplish what is required. Time is terribly short, but a strike can still succeed.” (see Jacob Heilbrunn, "Is Trump Starting a War with Iran?", National Interest, 8 May 2018).
From Netanyahu's standpoint, this may all seem very positive. But there is a catch. The US is heading towards the mid-term congressional elections in November and Trump’s Republicans could well take a beating, especially if North Korea fails to play ball. Trump could then be seriously weakened. In any case, there is no guarantee that Bolton or Pompeo will survive in their posts for long. The Israeli leader may have everything going his way now, but that may not last the year.
The IRGC/IDF escalation might be followed by a brief pause. But Israel could well soon decide to intensify the air operations against the Iranians in Syria still further, sufficient to provoke them into much more than firing a clutch of 1970s-vintage rockets. If Netanyahu really wants Iran brought to its knees and needs Washington to lead the way, then time may be short. This is yet one more reason for European governments to put every pressure they can on Trump to hold back. There is no guarantee that they will succeed.
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